War Eagle Writers in the Research Sandbox, Part 2: Crafting Learner Ready Instruction, Scaffolding Writing, and What We Learned Together

In my previous post; I outlined the work we did to:

  • brainstorm topics
  • narrow our topics
  • conduct pre-search
  • use that pre-search to finalize a topic choice
  • generate questions about our topic using the question lenses chart
  • finalize our research questions and complete an investigation plan/research contract

In this post, I’ll explain how we targeted these skills with our research/inquiry mini-project:

  • Adding sources to your bibliography in EasyBib.
  • Taking notes with the notecards in your EasyBib notebook on your two research questions in EasyBib.
  • Writing a strong introduction to your essay (the three sentence method).
  • Writing body paragraphs with the Schaffer two chunk method that helps you use your research/evidence to answer your research question with concrete details and commentary.
  • Showing where your information for your concrete details came from using parenthetical references in the body of your paper and using EasyBib to correctly generate your parenthetical references.
  • Using paraphrased and directly quoted information correctly as concrete details.
  • Using appropriate transition words in your paragraphs.
  • Writing a strong conclusion using our template provided to you.

Once students had their top two topic choices finalized, these questions served as our lens for moving into more formal and strategic research with our research questions serving as our compass.

Using EasyBib to Add Resources To Answer Our Research Questions and Take Meaningful Digital Notes

With the help of our school’s subscription to EasyBib, students could easily add sources to a working bibliography and begin taking digital notes with the digital notebook tool.  Most of my students had not used our subscription, so my previous experience as a librarian and extensive use of EasyBib helped me immerse the students into the platform and provide them resources and instruction on how to use EasyBib.

Once they got started, most were pleasantly surprised by how simple it is to use EasyBib and became enthusiastic users.  EasyBib also reduced my paper flow since students shared their projects with me electronically, and I could easily monitor and assess their progress with their bibliographies and digital notes.  We devoted about a week of class time to researching and taking notes; this in-class work time was important because students could ask for help with their research or EasyBib in person as needed.  I also gave students video tutorials so that if they needed assistance after hours or wanted to self-help themselves with EasyBib, then they could access the help videos.

Our target goal was to find at least four viable sources and to complete 10 digital notes.  Because students could share their projects with me electronically , I could easily and quickly check their work and provide feedback with the comments tools available for both the bibliography and the digital notebook.

Differentiating for Learners with Checklists and Instruction on Demand

Once I had checked a student’s work, given him/her feedback, and rechecked any research work that needed revising, he or she then received a learning pathways checklist to help him or her move through our next series of learning tasks.  I devised this checklist to help students have a path to instruction on demand since I widely varying ability levels in each class and wanted to have a way for students to work through the learning tasks at a personalized pace.

The first task for students was to do a self-assessment of his/her work in EasyBib using the reflection tool below:

Students were then ready to move through the mini-lessons and resources to help them begin writing their draft. Here is our writing plan for both grades 7 and 8:

Though I am not a fan of “essay formulas”, I have learned through experience this past year that most of my writers needed an “anchor” to help them compose their academic writing.  Our writing plan is a blend of structures from a fellow teacher and the Jane Schaffer “two chunk” paragraph writing method.  I felt the Schaffer “two chunk” paragraph writing structure would give my students a way of organizing their research into their essay and help them develop their ideas with evidence and their own analysis of the information.   This writing plan was introduced in one of three “instruction on demand” videos I created with my personal Screecastomatic account and inserted into our Canvas learning platform for both my 7th and 8th grade writing courses.  I no longer have access to my Canvas courses and do not have a saved screenshot of how the resources were embedded in that platform, but the resources are also crossposted to my LibGuides project page here:

Most students accessed the videos through Canvas simply because that was our space where they lived as learners, but I wanted to have a backup available through LibGuides.  In addition to the instructional videos on demand, I did provide students hard copies of each instructional handout—I learned quickly last fall that most of my students needed a hard copy of any handout because that fits their current learning style.

Once students reviewed our writing plan handout (posted earlier in this post) and watched Video 1, he/she was ready to craft the introduction.  I do not have permission to publish the introduction template, but it mirrored a structure we had used for earlier essays, so students were familiar with crafting the following elements for the introduction:

  • an effective hook (we had three primary strategies for composing the hook)
  • an additional sentence or sentences to further explain the information presented in the hook
  • our thesis statement

Once students drafted the introduction, I checked the work in class and then helped students set up their essay document in Google Docs.  Once students had typed the polished introduction, he/she was ready to the next step:  writing the body paragraphs.  Students received this handout, and I reviewed it with them before turning them loose to watch the custom tutorial video that explained the Schaffer Two Chunk paragraph writing method.  This example is one I wrote as I wanted to model for students the writing I was asking them to do.

Once students had finished watching Video 2, they received the third and final help handout to prep them for the third video from EasyBib.

As you can see, there is a good deal of frontloading between writing the introduction and writing the two body paragraphs, but I wanted the students to have a solid foundation before they attempted to compose the body paragraphs.  Once students finished the third video, I provided each one a copy of the composing checklist to support the students as they began drafting.

Once students were cleared to begin drafting, students moved forward by:

  • Composing the first body paragraph using the Schaffer Two Chunk method.  Students did all drafting directly in Google Docs and once the paragraph draft was completed, the draft could be shared with me for virtual feedback.  Many students also took the approach of composing the topic sentence and first “chunk” and then sharing the work with me to make sure they were on the right track before writing the second chunk of the first body paragraph.  These approaches made it possible to engage in meaningful formative assessment with students and to identify any areas that needed help or reteaching either with 1:1 instruction, additional resources shared through the Google Doc, and/or redirecting the students back to Videos 2 and 3 and the supporting help/model writing documents.
  • Once the first body paragraph was cleared, students could then compose the second body paragraph.  We repeated the same process and approaches for body paragraph 1.
  • Last but not least, students crafted their conclusions.  I do not have permission to publish the text structure template for the conclusion, but it was one we had used earlier in the year along with our transition words to help us compose a strong concluding paragraph.

Once students had finished revising and editing their work with my assistance and that of peers if they desired, we used Kidblog to publish our papers.  I love Kidblog because students can publish their work easily and Kidblog has Google Drive integration making it easy to publish writing created in Google Docs.   If you are working with younger students where privacy is a concern, Kidblog is the perfect solution to address that need.  One piece of advice to consider that I’ve learned in the last few days:  when I registered for Kidblog, I used my district email and signed up with the “register with Google” option that tied my Kidblog account directly to my work Google account.  Unfortunately, my access to my work email and portal were cut off earlier this week because I’m leaving the school district, but I didn’t anticipate it would be shut off before my current contract expired.  If you need access to student work after the fact, you may want to register with a personal email account instead of your work account.

Reflections:  Successes and Stumbling Blocks (Glows and Grows)

Successes/Glows/Celebrations

  • Students gained tremendous confidence and experience in selecting sources, evaluating information, and taking meaningful notes in EasyBib.
  • Students were able to work at their own pace and access instruction on demand.
  • Checklists helped students stay on track and practice new writing skills.
  • Google Docs and our “learning pathway” approach helped amplify the possibilities for real-time formative assessment and feedback at the learner point of need.
  • Students investigated meaningful questions that could not be easily answered with simple facts; students generated deeper level research questions to go beyond regurgitating facts.  The Schaffer Two Chunk writing method also pushed students to incorporate their own analysis or interpretation of the information they used as their concrete details.
  • The model text I crafted and supporting instructional video for the Schaffer method seemed to be helpful to most students.
  • Students were interested and invested in their topics they self-selected.
  • Students saw the connections between their notes and the body paragraphs they composed.
  • Though not every student completed the entire paper, they still had rich learning experiences they grew their research and writing skills.  Those who did finish expressed tremendous pride in their work.
  •  I felt fairly comfortable with the flexible/rolling deadlines and timeline I established with the research and drafting pieces of the project.  Because each class had such varying groups of learners, I felt the way I designed this part of the unit and the “instruction on demand” helped me better differentiate for everyone.

Stumbling Blocks/Grows/Regrets

  • Many students did not complete the entire paper because we simply ran out of time.  I didn’t anticipate losing some of the instructional time I did due to end of year activities and the Connections teachers being used for end of year specials the last three days of the school year (I had no instructional time with my students the final week).  I didn’t realize this would happen until it was too late though I don’t know we could have started the research project any earlier than we did due to the state testing.  I now wish I had integrated the research work with our informational writing in January and February.
  • Because I realized (too late) not every student would finish the paper in spite of his/her best efforts, I had to calibrate and rethink how I would fairly assign a final or summative grade (each piece of the project counted as a formative grade).    This challenge only added to my growing discomfort and angst over assigning grades.  {Readings that are adding to my internal conflict about grades and grading are here and here.  I also recommend this post as well.} I desperately  wanted to reward and recognize process and progress for all students, not just those who finished all the pieces of our project.
  • A 40 minute instructional block of time felt awfully insufficient all year, but it felt especially short with this particular unit of writing; even students would comment they wished our class was longer.
  • Not all students had an opportunity to publish their work (even if incomplete) on our project blog because again, we simply ran out of time.
  • Because I didn’t realize when my actual last day of instruction was with the students (the end  of the year is markedly different in middle school from high school), very few students had an opportunity to engage in any self-assessment of their project (grade 7 and grade 8 or their reflections on their work over the last year.   Even though school has been out nearly two weeks, I still feel rather sick about this glaring hole in our final unit.
  • Even though I tried to build in what I felt was ample time for all pieces of the project, I misjudged what students needed by about a week.  Gauging how much time was sufficient for my students in all three grades I taught (6, 7, and 8) was an ongoing challenge for me all year.
  • Though I’ll be teaching 11th and 12th Language Arts classes in another district next year, I want to introduce research skills in small doses earlier in the academic year.

Even with the challenges I have outlined, I am still happy with the outcomes of the project because the students had meaningful learning experiences that emphasized depth and process.  They also picked incredibly interesting topics including:

  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Exoplanets
  • Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963
  • 2017 Nissan GT-R
  • Chattahoochee River Water Wars
  • Effectiveness of Adidas Adiprene
  • Assorted endangered animals (causes, issues, solutions)
  • German Shepherds as superior police dogs
  • Best treatments for breast cancer
  • Medical therapies for depression
  • How to get a job at ESPN
  • How to safely enjoy off-roading activities
  • Advances in forensic science
  • Syria/chemical weapons used on children
  • Bermuda Triangle
  • Climate change
  • Concussions and soccer
  • Photography
  • Lowrider culture
  • Career research on becoming an Army Ranger

I was impressed by the breadth of topics my 7th and 8th graders chose!

How This Writing Project Will Inform My Work as a Teacher Moving Forward

I also felt that of all the research projects I’ve done with the students, this is the one where I had the most day to day hands on involvement because I was able to give so much formative assessment and feedback on demand with every student.  The day to day work, conferencing, and examination of work together (as well as feedback provided after hours in advance of a face to face conversation the next day) really helped me to know my students as learners and the work they were doing.  Though I did not quite get the point that Rebekah O’Dell did after her first year trying a gradeless classroom, the intense focus on feedback and regular interaction fueled our work even though we were all fighting the end of the year weariness that comes even in the best of circumstances.   I found myself feeling a bit bereft and not wanting the year to end because these experiences made me realize there was so much still left for my students and I to learn together.  Even as I write this statement, I feel tears welling up in my eyes and though I’m looking forward to my adventures at my new school, I feel sadness that I will not have more time with my War Eagle writers again.

Though I know it is not possible for me to enact a gradeless classroom next year, I do want to be more intentional about these kinds of rich, regular interactions and the emphasis on feedback because I’ve had a taste of what is possible and the shift that can happen for both teachers and students.  As Rebekah O’Dell shared in her post,

“Changing the way I graded changed everything in my classroom.

Many of my hopes for this project were realized — as I gave up bits of my control, students found their voice in the classroom and in their writing. Students became risk-takers in all the best ways. They accounted for their mess-ups and  for their enormous victories. They learned to tell me what they needed.

But something even more significant happened.  Somehow, as a result of removing grades on individual assignments, I developed the deepest relationships I have ever had with students. Changing the grades didn’t just change the classroom atmosphere or the students’ work ethic or my paper load. Somehow, changing the grades changed our hearts— theirs and mine. More than ever before, I knew them and they truly knew me.

In a career of experimentation, this particular change — this heart change — has been the most profound.

The biggest reward for me was this: relationships, which led to community. My classroom finally felt the way I’ve always wanted it to feel. I walked into class daily with the freedom to be the teacher I always want to be.”

Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and our students?  I am thankful for this last year that has given me glimpses of what could be for me and my students; I am forever thankful for my War Eagle Writers at Chestatee Academy and my principal, Jennifer Kogod, who gave me freedom to try and innovate in our writing studio.  I am thankful for the growth spurt I had this past year as a teacher and want to continue on this path in 2017-18 as I keep growing into the teacher I want to be.

My End of Year Self-Assessment, Part 1

Original photo by Buffy J. Hamilton

As part of the Georgia Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES) , the common evaluation system designed for building teacher effectiveness and ensuring consistency and comparability throughout the state, we have an end of year conference with our supervising administrator.  My principal, Mrs. Jennifer Kogod, asked us to prepare a written self-assessment as a springboard for our face to face end of year conference.

I wrote way more than than was required, but composing my thoughts on how well I did meeting my professional TKES goals was a great reflective exercise.  I’ll write an additional and broader “end of year review” to piggyback on this post, but because this year was such an important one of learning and growth, I wanted to share it here on the blog.  Because I was a media specialist when TKES was first piloted, this is my first year being evaluated as a classroom teacher with the TKES platform.


Buffy Hamilton Title I Writing Teacher
Self-Assessment
2016-17 Academic Year
May 2, 2017

Original Goal Statement:

Knowing that student writing promotes lasting learning, I will implement Jim Vopat’s method of writing circles with all of my Writer’s Workshop and Writing Connections classes to help students improve writing fluency and skills across multiple genres. The evidence for achieving the goal will be an action research study examining student work and student self-assessment portfolios crafted between September and April.

Target Performance Standards:
• Standard 3: Instructional Strategies
• Standard 5: Assessment Strategies
• Standard 6: Assessment Uses

Strategies:

Students will work in writing circles to choose writing topics, types of writing pieces within a genre unit of study we are studying as a class, share writing, provide regular feedback on writing pieces, and draft two at least two days a week in class. We will use writing cycles to lead to regular intervals of publishing our best work.

I will observe and take notes on writing group meetings as well as hold writing conferences with individual students; I will keep notes on these observations and conferences as data.

My Reflections and Self-Assessment

My original goal was to implement Jim Vopat’s writing circles method to help facilitate student writing growth and fluency across multiple genres. Although this particular approach was ultimately not a good fit for where my grades 6-8 learners were, I was still able to accomplish many of the same targets that were embedded in the writing circle method:

• Students had regular opportunities to brainstorm, explore, and self-select their writing topics.
• Students engaged in a wide variety of writing genres, including personal narratives, poetry, informational writing (through zines), problem-solution writing, persuasive (grade 6) and argumentative writing (grades 7 and 8), and research-based writing.
• Students had regular opportunities to share their work through class readings, Google Documents, gallery walks of student work, peer editing and review, and our class KidBlogs.
• Students in each grade wrote regularly every week–students engaged in writing on a daily basis including Writer’s Notebook entries, Quickwrites, paragraphs, essays, extended pieces of writing, and shorter pieces of writing that were part of our daily work of thinking through our writing.

Reflections By Professional Standards

Standard 3: Instructional Strategies

I tried a wide range of instructional strategies for writing this year as I drew upon the work of literacy leaders like Kelly Gallagher, Allison Marchetti, Rebekah O’Dell, Harvey Daniels, Jim Wilhelm, Nancy Steineke, and Gretchen Bernabei. I also borrowed ideas from fellow Language Arts teachers I know through Twitter.

In particular, I used a great deal of modeling and mentor texts with my students—these mentor texts were not only pieces from other writers, but I frequently used my students’ work as a mentor text across grade levels. I also tried different methods of keeping writers’ notebooks across all grade levels and Ralph Fletcher’s “greenbelt” writing with 6th graders.

Standard 5: Assessment Strategies and Standard 6: Assessment Uses

These two standards are the area I have wrestled with throughout the year. Increasingly, I am thinking about how “grading” differs from assessment and what exactly a “grade” means, particularly in a writer’s workshop environment. Throughout most of my career, assessment and grading have been treated as a concept that is scientific and pure, and that if we establish solid learning targets and design rubrics aligned to those tools, then all should be fine and good, right? However, I see more and more areas of gray, especially when it comes to struggling writers. I sometimes wonder how grades influence how they see themselves as writers and if that grade and the feedback you try to include with the rubric has any real value to middle school writers. I also am not sure if the grade and assessments I have given/administered will actually correlate to the Milestones writing tasks since they are 1. All evidence-based writing and 2. Writing that is inherently dependent on the students’ ability to read and comprehend multiple texts. Consequently, I have concerns about the limitations of a Milestones writing score as it really assesses only one type of writing and even with that, I am not sure about the validity of that score and if the assessment REALLY measures what it intends to do so.  (*Note:  our test data indicates my 7th and 8th writing cohorts both showed improvement in every area of the writing assessment on the EOG Milestones; they also showed marked improvement in other areas of the Milestones ELA*).

I believe my most effective assessment method was one of formative assessment with writing conferences. Thanks to the work of Carl Anderson, I feel I have shown tremendous growth in my ability to engage in meaningful writing conferences with my students. I believe this is one of the things I have done that has had the most impact on my young writers. I am thankful for small classes that allow me to do this on a regular basis; the only limitation was time as our classes meet for roughly 40 minutes, and it’s hard to get to each student in that time frame.

I have also given students multiple opportunities to self-assess their work both informally and formally. Helping them to know on their own when a piece of writing is “finished” and giving them revising and writing strategies to evaluate and determine this for themselves is something I’ve worked on all year. I believe this is one of the ultimate benchmarks of growth when a student looks more to himself or herself and less to me to understand when a piece of writing is complete and why/how that is so.

I have tried keeping hard copy student portfolios as well as digital, but I haven’t quite yet found a means that feels efficient and accessible. This endeavor is one I will continue to contemplate and work on during 2017-18.

Though not all students have grown as writers in the ways I hoped, many have shown tremendous growth in different areas. I am proud that all students have been challenged and given multiple opportunities to wrestle with ideas and their thinking; I am also proud that students have used writing not just an end product but as a tool for thinking and expression.

Joy.  Writers. 

Yesterday my 6th graders designed their learning contract for Cycle 2 of our Greenbelt Writing project.  Today every student in period 6-3 came in and got to work with no verbal prompting on their first writing piece–it was just rather breathtaking watching them work and make decisions as they composed.  My 6-6 writers also got down to business and immersed themselves in the first writing pieces of this cycle.

We are mired in end of year craziness, and the pace is frenetic as I juggle all the end of year events with my 7th and 8th grade writers and their inquiry projects, many of whom are doing their very first research-based writing in their young lives (another post coming on that this week–there is joy in academic writing structures, too!).   Even with smaller classes, juggling six classes of writers is sometimes akin to moving at the speed of light. But today as I walked about watching my 6th grade writers, I tried to really watch and listen.

It’s in these moments you pause and you suddenly really see what is happening before you, much like the unfurling of the trees and flowers as spring comes into full bloom, and the world suddenly seems lush and vibrant.   You  pause from the frenetic pace of the day to see young writers blossoming and growing in front of you, and I feel both awe and joy. Maybe this is not the kind of growth that shows up in what Georgia defines as a growth bubble, but it is growth, and you hope you’ve nurtured a young write in a way that will continue to bear fruit in years to come.  I am thankful I can still feel the awe and the joy after 25 years of teaching.

I have quite a few of my students who are doing collaborative writing this week.  A sampler of today’s  writing pieces  include Reader’s Theatre scripts, couplet poems, Gretchen Bernabei’s writing structure “Story of My Thinking,” and Gretchen Bernabei’s structure “Favorite Place.”  I have students doing persuasive pieces; other students are doing writing pieces about people who have made a difference like Malala Yousafzai.  They are writing about historical events they have chosen and care about like the Chernobyl, Holocaust, and September 11.  They are writing personal narratives about lost parents; they are writing about favorite and special places like a hunting camp.  They are writing about how to play baseball and crafting time travel stories.   We still have challenges, but they are writing.

They are writing collaboratively, and they are writing alone.

They are writing, and they are writing with joy.

Nurturing Seeds of Writing Joy with Greenbelt Writing

A week ago, I sat down and read Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Joy Write, on a Sunday afternoon.   A wonderful synopsis of the book is posted over at Two Writing Teachers by Stacy Shubitz; for me, the book really crystallized the tension I often feel between teaching certain genres I know my kids need and the messier, experimental writing that kids also need to grow as writers.  Because I only get to see each class for roughly forty minutes each day, time has been one of the challenges as I’ve wrestled with this inner conflict.  While I don’t completely agree with everything Ralph Fletcher says (and I’ve been a fan of his work my entire career), I do love his ideas about greenbelt writing and its importance, especially for struggling writers.  I don’t feel a writer’s workshop is an “either/or” proposition for secondary grades, but instead, I think a writing studio includes greenbelt writing as well as more structured writing that includes more 1:1 help and guided instruction, an inquiry stance on writing that includes the use of modeling and mentor texts, and the use of writer’s notebooks for thinking and trying out different writing/text structures.

Fletcher introduces his concept of Greenbelt Writing in Chapter 5 and then has subsequent chapters explaining what it might look like. Fletcher defines Greenbelt Writing as:

“Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated.  I’m talking about informal writing. Writing that is wild, like the pungent skunk cabbage that sprouts haphazardly along the edge of a swamp.  I’m talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over the shoulder.”

Fletcher also says that the more “developed” and structured modern writing workshop can be supplemented with greenbelt writing, a “wild territory where kids can discover the power of writing” that is (39):

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood

In Chapter 10, Fletcher says, “…instead of giving reluctant writers more structure, let’s give them more freedom.  Invite students to try out any of the writing types detailed in Chapters 6 and 7, and especially the ideas found in Chapter 8” (85).  Fletcher then tells teachers to encourage these kinds of writing:  free-writing, journal writing, writing in a favorite genre, collaborative writing, humor, obsessions, and edgy writing.  Several teachers he interviewed who have tried greenbelt writing with their students say their students gain confidence and see themselves as writers, processes that are essential to growth as a writer.  Fletcher acknowledges teachers may not completely buy into the idea that greenbelt writing will lead to “…stronger formal classroom writing” (86).  However, Karen Huy, a third grade teacher, says “Before I can even get reluctant writers to regard themselves a writers, I have to get them to see all of their many forms of writing as writing” (87).

With these ideas and arguments (as well as counterarguments from personal experience and included in the book) in mind, Chapters 5 and 10—“Greenbelt Writing” and “The Reluctant Writers” —were the two chapters that resonated with me the most; they pushed my thinking and perspective, and as a result, I scrapped my plans for the last 3.5 weeks with my 6th grade Writing Connections and rebooted to have a “Greenbelt Writing” unit.  While a formal unit is not truly in the spirit of the book, it is a starting point for us and a space for us to experiment with greenbelt writing; it also gives us this space to simply write, share, and hopefully thrive while sustaining our writing stamina.    I also see the greenbelt writing project as a space for us to plant seeds for the 2017-18 year and to figure out how to better balance greenbelt writing with the required genres I know my students must learn.  Though I am presenting this as a unit to my 6th grade writers, I am trying to stay true to Fletcher’s urging that we not keep out as teachers but adopt a “hands off” (40) approach in terms of letting students pick their genres of writing/writing projects and evaluating their work/knowing when it is publish-ready.  Most importantly, this unit is designed to give students “spaces and opportunities to experience the pleasure of writing” (40).

Last week, we began by brainstorming topics we were interested in writing about.  I then introduced our project guidelines to both of my sections of 6th Writing Connections.  I have organized our project into two writing cycles; in each cycle, students choose two writing projects to develop and publish on our 6th Writing Connections KidBlog.  We also reviewed our calendar and timeline for Writing Cycle 1.



All of my 6th graders are struggling writers, so I thought about how to keep the writing open yet provide some flexible writing structures for those who might want something to help them start.  I crafted the following menu and stations for each kind of writing that students could visit:

Students always have the option to free-write most of the genres; some of the genres are ones we have done earlier in the year, like different kinds of poetry and personal narratives.  While I know Fletcher railed against the use of any templates in his book, the reality is that many of my students honestly have NO idea where or how to begin even with lots of modeling.  I primarily used writing/text structures  from Gretchen Bernabei (I have all of her books!) because I love how her work provides flexible writing/text structures to help students who need “training wheels” to get them going with their selected writing pieces if they are not sure how to begin with their choices as a free-write. Her text structures and “kernel essays” also give them ideas for exploring different ways writing might look within a genre.  Here are my go to resources I used from Gretchen:

After they reviewed the list of options, they visited each “genre” station and decided which kinds of writing they wanted to do.  I asked students to pick two choices, indicate the topic, share if they planned to write with a partner, and share if they planned to create any of the writing pieces as a VoiceThread (we have a district subscription).  I took everyone’s contract and created a master roster that is now posted in the room so students can double-check their chosen writing projects.  Here is a sampler of student topics and writing pieces:

  • Favorite places (local, like Mom’s house; others are more exotic like the Bahamas)
  • Medical Marijuana–persuasive/argument
  • Family stories
  • Favorite memories, like the first day of school
  • Traffic/car accidents
  • Anxiety and worry stories–one student is writing about his fear of tornadoes
  • School rules–persuasive
  • Gun control–persuasive
  • How to bathe a dog
  • Flowers
  • Made up story–the disappearing boy, dogs, the dangers of technology
  • What if humanity became extinct
  • How to make a spinner
  • Personal narrative–“my scars”
  • Readers’ Theatre Scripts–time travel, soccer, smartphones
  • How to build a skateboard
  • How to make slime
  • Assorted poems (free verse, color, Where I’m From)
  • Persuasive–why I deserve a dog, why I need a certain kind of shoe, why the school day should be shorter
  • Problem-Solution–bullying
  • Valuable advice–being a good friend, being a good student in middle school
  • How to stay organized
  • Poem topics:  flower, wildlife, nature, ocean, beach, my dog
  • Archery–how to

For the last three days, students have been working on their projects with enthusiasm.  I had three students who were ready to publish poems today in period 6-3; they LOVED seeing their work on our class blog and learning how to publish on the blog.

It’s also worth nothing that nearly every student chose to do one collaborative project, and many are interested in trying VoiceThread.  I’m excited to see what students create the next three weeks, and I will try to do a follow-up post near the end of May.  I’ll also continue to contemplate the arguments and ideas Fletcher presented in his wonderful book and dwell in this metaphor of informal writing as a greenbelt.